Please note: After several successful years, the Open Minds blog will be closing. For further details, please visit our FAQ

Currently showing: Food security > GMOs

21 Apr 13 10:10

While some countries have allowed GM foods to be sold and cultivated, in India the debate rages on if GM crops really bring the benefits that are claimed. The government too seems divided on the issue. Pro groups claim it will address India's food security problems with higher and better quality yields while anti GM food activists point towards the potential health risks and increased cost of food production.

It's ironic that in a country like India with surplus food supply, millions still go hungry and they key to tackling that problem is not through GM foods but by reforming the public distribution system to prevent food grains rotting in godowns.

BBC HARDtalk - Vandana Shiva - Environmental Campaigner (19/11/12)

HARDtalk speaks to the original tree hugger. The phrase was coined back in the seventies when she, along with a group of women in India, hugged trees to stop...

Category: Food security: Gmos

Location: India


Alicia Montoya - 5 May 2013, 12:56 p.m.

Thank you for raising this crucial issue, Karthik and my oh my, what an inspiring lady!!

It took me a while to get through all the links and materials you point to. Thanks for those, interesting to see how polarized the debate is. Here's one from me which I find summarizes the issue well:

I finally did get through it all and would say that for me the critical learnings are that:
- (Human) technological advances and innovation are often great, but let's not forget that nature has been evolving and surviving for far longer than humans. Moreover, in the process of engineering "the cotton miracle", we are eliminating the native varieties that have stood the test of time, and survived the ravages of pest and disease. The irony is of course that the pink bollworm which Bt cotton was meant to resist to has now evolved/ mutated so as to become resistant to the pest killing protein in Bt cotton.
- Sourcing food locally is more nutritious and sustainable economically, environmentally and socially.
- There are very powerful lobbies behind the food industry. We must ensure we, as consumers, applaud their successes and reject their failures. In this case, dropping yields (due to land fatigue brought about by monoculture), rising debts (and suicides!) amongst peasants, and growing starvation of India's population all point to a failure of GM crops and monoculture in effectively meeting the needs of India's +1.2 billion souls.
- The astronomical amounts of food wasted are further proof that mass grain, fruit and veg cultures are not working: 21 million tonnes of wheat -- equivalent to the entire production of Australia -- goes waste every year in India due to lack of infrastructure and facilities. 40% for fruit & veg too! Needless to say, this would not happen with multicrop plots adapted to each region's climatic and soil specificities, as well as to its local population's tastes (culture) and needs. So even if the yield were greater (which according to Vandana Shiva and multiple studies it is not AND is in fact dropping), it still does not prove the need for monocrops.

From my non-technical standpoint (and I urge all readers to please correct me if I'm wrong - I would love their more expert opinion on this), it looks like there is enough food in the world to feed us all. It's how we (mass) grow it and (unevenly) distribute it that seems to be causing all the problems.

I look forward to your answers so as to figure out how we can all (corporations and citizens worldwide) work together to improve our management of food.

Tushar Karande - 15 May 2013, 11:02 a.m.

BT cotton was the first entry of GM in India. Recently BT brinjal was planned to introduce but it was opposed .
I feel in the intial phase atleast BT for food crops should not be introduced.

Alicia Montoya - 17 May 2013, 6:04 a.m.

Given your expertise in the matter, I'd love to know your views on how these monocultures are affecting water resources in India, and what companies in the agriculture sector are doing to address water shortage via innovation. Care to tell us more?

Gavin Montgomery - 22 May 2013, 7:47 a.m.

As the BBC reported yesterday - - Ireland's Great Famine was due to a single pathogen, a fungus which wiped out the country's potato crops and left a million people dead from starvation with many more forced to immigrate. The root of the problem was a monoculture of Irish Thumper potatoes and it is exactly this kind of monoculture that is being developed in cotton crops in India, global banana crops, wheat crops, and most other sources of food, largely due to aggressive marketing by oligopoly in the food chain.

Gilles Renouil - 25 May 2013, 7:46 a.m.

@ Gavin thanks for sharing! It occurs to me that we have the choice between improved yields or survival through diversity... Why do we have such a short memory? Cheers. Gilles.

Yuanbo Liu - 6 Jun 2013, 4:39 p.m.

@Gavin - thanks for bringing up this important point. Monocropping makes supply extremely vulnerable to disease. The improved yields they may provide in the short term do not ensure a sustainable supply.

The Cavendish banana is a good example of this. The Cavendish banana is the yellow banana we are most familiar with seeing in the grocery store in the Western world. It is the king of export bananas and the darling of Chiquita, Dole and other fruit companies. There is an excellent book about the Cavendish banana crisis written by the journalist Dan Koeppel, called "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World". Here is another good article that was in Popular Science: Disease threatened to bring the Cavendish banana to the brink of extinction, a major threat in this case not necessarily to people who like to eat bananas, but more so to the banana industry.

I do not agree with everything that Vandana Shiva says, but I do think there are major risks with monocropping/limiting biodiversity, for both people and businesses.

Alicia Montoya - 21 Jun 2013, 6:22 a.m.

@Gilles & all: According to Vandana (and many others, including all the farmers taking their lives because they cannot pay their debts which they took on the promise of the higher yields that never materialized), yields actually drop over time to below original levels due to soil exhaustion from mono-cropping. So it looks like our choices are get smart about keeping biodiverse habitats that can stay healthy and continue to yield, or over-exploit the Earth for ever-dropping yields, destroying biodiversity & habitats in our path. In other words, to me, there really is no choice. So how do we go back from mono-cropping to diverse, sustainable agriculture.

I'm not an expert (so please correct me if I'm wrong) but from where I stand, it looks like the first thing we need to look at are subsidies (e.g. corn in the States) to redress the economic incentives to deplete the soil and destroy our eco-systems. Not so sure how effective labeling would be but yes, I would also like to know what I'm eating and have a choice not to eat GMOs, thank you very much. Another important piece is objective research (as in, NOT financed by companies in the agri industry nor by any interested parties). Are all GMOs bad? Possibly not. But am I tired of being lied to or told half truths to support big industry lobbies? Hell, yeah.

Another consideration is that we throw away half of the food that we produce ( So doesn't this mean that we don't actually need higher yields, but better food use (behaviors), as well as distribution and conservation methods?

Karthik Sampath - 24 Jun 2013, 7:26 p.m.

There's new research that indicates that insects are becoming resistant to bt crops. The pests were developing resistance from anywhere between 2-15 years after the bt crops were introduced. The only way to slow the resistance developing was by creating non-bt plant refuges close to bt crops. This however was not being strictly followed in India and hence the very pest these crops were meant to be resistant against like the pink boll worm, the crops failed in 6 years.

So the question really is, are GM crops really working?

Meanwhile, green activists are stepping up their efforts to counter the GMO lobby who are pushing for the controversial BRAI (Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India) bill to be passed by the govt of India which will pave the way for GM food companies to tap the huge Indian market.

If you would like to leave a comment, please, log in.